Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Monarch: Rallying Call of A Dying Butterfly

Several months ago, I reviewed Barbara Kingsolver’s New York Times Bestseller Flight Behavior. The story, whose premise is climate change and its affect on the monarch butterfly migration, is told through the eyes of Dellarobia Turnbow, a rural housewife in Tennessee, who yearns for meaning in her life. In the opening, Dellarobia stumbles upon a monarch massing in the forested hills above her farm. Although Dellarobia doesn’t realize it yet, that moment proves life-changing for her:  

“A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame…The mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave. Like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze…Trees turned to fire…The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in shows of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upwards in swirls like funnel clouds….It was a lake of fire, something far more fierce and wondrous than either of those elements alone. The impossible…She was on her own here, staring at glowing trees…Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, and ethereal wind. It had to mean something.”

Since that review, COSEWIC (the committee on the status of endangered wildlife in Canada) reported that the monarch is now officially “endangered”, victim to habitat loss of wintering grounds (through illegal logging) in Mexico, along with increasing destruction of milkweed caterpillar breeding habitat by drought and insecticide in Canada and the United States. While GMO corn, canola and soybeans have been engineered to be immune to the herbicide Round-Up (glyphosate), which is used liberally in large corporate farms, milkweed and other native “weeds” are destroyed.

The monarch butterfly migration is now recognized as a “threatened process” by the International
Union for Conservation of Nature. The monarch has precipitously declined—by 90% in the last two decades since Round-Up was aggressively introduced. Our role in Canada is paramount as part of the monarch’s cycle. Overwintering butterflies leave Mexico in early spring and migrate into the southern US, where they lay their eggs on milkweed plants before dying. Like in a relay race, the caterpillar offspring feed exclusively on milkweed, then as adults migrate further north into Canada to reproduce again and then return to Mexico to overwinter.

Future generations of monarchs, faced with changing climates, may have a hard time finding their way home, writes Nayantara Narayanan in a recent Scientific American article (2013). A monarch butterfly navigates using a sun compass in its mid-brain and circadian clocks in its antennae. But, until now, what makes a monarch reverse its direction has remained a mystery. New research shows that the chill at the start of spring triggers this switch. Monarch butterflies, having flown south in the fall, reorient themselves and start flying north after they've been exposed to lower temperatures, according to the study published … in Current Biology.” Researchers had to “go from signal to behavior” to figure it out. They determined that with temperature being a critical trigger for the monarch’s northward journey, climate change could be a “big spoilsport in its mass migration.” Unruly and unseasonal storms coupled with microclimate degradation (e.g., logging forests and killing milkweed through drought), are impacting monarch survival.

The monarch butterfly is just one species—a sentinel, if you will—in what many scientists are calling the largest mass-ever extinction in Earth’s history; and one caused by runaway global warming. Two hundred and fifty million years ago, 90% of all living things were wiped out in the Permian mass extinction. Researchers in Canada, Italy, Germany and the US argue that volcanic eruptions pumped massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, causing average temperatures to rise by eight to 11°C in their paper in the journal Palaeoworld. This melted vast amounts of methane (just like what is currently happening in the shelf sediments and permafrostregions of the northern hemisphere), causing temperatures to soar even further to levels “lethal to most life on land and in the oceans.”

Climate change—and all that is associated with it—is altering our planet irreparably, one sure-footed step at a time. And it is doing this regardless of geographic boundary, political affiliation, scientific knowledge or religious belief. Climate change is a global phenomenon that can provide us with the very best opportunity to unite as a global community.

In 2014, Canada, the U.S. and Mexico cooperated as Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama and Enrique Pena Nieto signed the North American Climate, Clean Energy, and Environment Partnership Action Plan—something, which I wonder if the current U.S. administration will now honour.

Focusing on the monarch or any other sentinel is a sound rallying approach that can have significant cumulative effects. The entire world is inexorably linked, after all.

You save the monarch; you save the world.

Kingsolver ends her book with Dellarobia caught in a mountain flood that may take her life; yet, she remains suspended—transfixed in the moment of the miracle unfolding before her. The monarchs survived the winter and are taking flight:

“The vivid blur of their reflections glowed on the rumpled surface of the water, not clearly defined as individual butterflies but as masses of pooled, streaky color, like the sheen of floating oil, only brighter, like a lava flow…Her eyes held steady on the fire bursts of wings reflected across the water, a merging of flame and flood. Above the lake of the world, flanked by white mountains, they flew out to a new earth.”

Let us hope that we are part of that new earth.

Things that you can do to help:
  • Plant a butterfly garden. Add plants that take the monarch from tiny egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult. These include plants in the milkweed family and nectar-rich blooming plants. Most nurseries sell pollinator mix seeds.
  • Plant milkweeds in your garden. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants. The adults get most of their energy from the nectar of plants.
  • Place your garden where it receives lots of sunlight but is also protected from the elements. You can create a shelter using trees, shrubs and perennials as well as logs and stones. Flat stones can serve as hot spots for butterflies to get warm.
  •  Write your MLA / MNA / MPP and the minister responsible for environmental issues. Let them know you are concerned. Letters are important and taken very seriously by government; they understand that for every letter sent there are many who think similarly but aren’t writing.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

When New Embraces Old: Part 2, Incorporating Nature in Design

students studying in Donnelly
UofT is a place of learning—erudite, splendid, yet humble—beautifully epitomizing “new embracing old”. When new embraces old, we get magic. Wizard-magic. Harry Potter kind of magic. The kind of magic that only someone who is open, faithful, and confident can wield. This is ancient magic. The magic that lurks like Reznikoff’s ghost in the ancient halls of University College, or the magic currently wielded at 1 Spadina. A magic borne of wisdom, lore, and story.

Terrence Donnelly Centre
The St. George campus of UofT lies embedded in the city of Toronto, steps away from the upscale shopping district of Yonge and Bloor and not much farther from the bustle of the financial district on King and Bay. It’s a bracing walk to Union Station, where every moving vehicle ends up at some time. UofT sprawls like an amoeba of neutrinos through the parliament buildings of University Avenue, making subtle changes here and there. Recreating the fabric of the cityscape in muonic subtleties.

In Part 1 of my Old / New journey, I wrote about my walk south from the St. George TTC station along St. George to the Galbraith and Bahen buildings, where I teach in science and engineering. I currently also teach in the Bloomberg Health Sciences building on College Street. It lies directly across from a building that has long held my curiosity: the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular & Biomolecular Research (CCBR).
Spiral staircase on 6th floor

Donnelly is where some of the coolest research and discoveries in biomolecular and cellular research are being made. Benjamin Blencowe and his team’s recent uncovering a protein’s sweeping influence on autism last December using introverted mice, for instance. Named after the philanthropist Terrence J. Donnelly, the centre was the vision of UofT Professors Cecil Yip and James Friesen. In the 1990s they foresaw that new genomic technologies would open up progress in biomedical research in a time when there was no human genome sequence or stem cell technologies and DNA sequencing was slow and inexpensive. Yip and Friesen envisioned a collaborative interdisciplinary research facility that, when it opened in 2005, brought together over 500 specialistsbiologists, computer scientists, physicians, pharmacists and engineers—to advance the university's groundbreaking research in molecular biology.

entrance to atrium of Donnelly
Designed by ArchitectsAlliance and Behnisch Architekten, Donnelly is a sustainable, transparent 12-storey building that promotes collaborative research within flexible, loft-style open concept laboratories and social spaces: ideal for interaction and sharing of ideas. "The Terence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research ... is intelligent, unconventional architecture designed through a strong collaboration between local Toronto architects and German gurus of high-technology design," writes Lisa Rochon of the Globe and Mail (2005). "Three faculties—medicine, pharmacy and engineering and applied sciences—agreed to participate, so that biologists might start brainstorming in the same labs along with computer scientists and chemists," Rochon adds.

The centre is located on what was previously Taddle Creek Road. The CCBR building—which from College Street resembles two colourful stacked cubes—is set back by a gradually sloping plaza with granite benches and groves of white paper birch. The building and plaza are flanked by several historic buildings (80-year old Fitzgerald Medical Building to the east; the 1919 Rosebrugh Institute of Biomaterials and 100-year old Lassonde Mining building to the west; and the Medical Sciences Building to the north).
staircase past bamboo garden in atrium

Upon entering the complex, the granite plaza gives way to white terrazzo flooring in an expansive multi-storey atrium. The top lit glass-ceilinged atrium connects the adjacent heritage Rosebrugh building to the CCBR in a counterpoint of techno-minimalism with Romanesque tradition. While clearly expressing its 21st century vision, Donnelly honours the earlier work of Frederick Banting and Charles Best—scientists who discovered insulin in 1921—by sharing its western wall with the brick exterior of the Rosebrugh building, where research into diabetes continues.

Rosebrugh wall in atrium
My eyes feasted on this rich expression of old and new, starting with the articulated buff coloured brickwork—the row-lock brick patterning and tall Roman corbelled arch windows—of the western wall. My gaze swung to the textured green of the giant bamboo garden in front of it; and finally to the sweeping staircase ahead of me. As I walked up the shallow wide steps lined by pillars that reached skyward, I felt drawn to the bamboo forest to my left. Created by landscape architect Diana Gerrard, the garden offers several "picnic" sites of wooden platforms and benches, which I learned had come from the ash, tulip and cherry trees that had occupied the original lane way.

Rochon suggests that "three elements enliven the architecture: landscape, history and natural light. There is an insertion of greenery, not only at the atrium level, but also on three research floors where plantings of black olive trees and a creeping fig create a sense of moderate climates without resorting to palm trees." Standing on the fifth floor of a research corridor that also overlooks five stories down in the atrium, I enjoyed a splendid view of how new embraced old through these elements.
View of picnic nook from 3rd floor

On my way to the elevator on the second level, I passed several seminar and lecture halls. Colour-coded, like much of the building, there is the "Red Room", the "White Room" or the "Black Room", projecting outward into the wide corridor like giant pods with surfaces polished in mosaic tiles from Italy. 

I took the elevator to the twelfth floor to explore several of the research floors, finding several multi-storied enclaves of trees, wooden floors and benches or desks that invited. These staff lounges, along with a system of open corridors and stairwells encourage informal, interdisciplinary contact on which scientific discoveries are built. I wound my way down on a series of stairs that spiraled like a DNA helix and a dizzying zigzag of stairs that hung over the bamboo-forested atrium. Gazing up from a hanging stairway off the fourth floor, I rested my eyes on a researcher sitting at a desk on the fifth floor: she perched over the atrium like a bird on a tree limb. I was reminded of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, where interaction is promoted between scientists and researchers of the various disciplines through ingenious design.

View of Donnelly from the west
"That it is a 12-storey, shifting box of transparency is an act of intelligent decisions and of unconventional thinking around what a curtain wall should look like," writes Rochon of Donnelly. Rochon describes the south-facing facade as a double skin of glass, which permits solar and acoustic control and provides a rich transparency on the building's primary face. From within the research offices, it's possible to open and close the inner skin of windows. The exterior
6-story Atrium of Donnelly Centre
glass wall acts "like a big sweater" lined with metal louvres. Each office has electronic controls to operate the thermostat, the light switch and the louvres." The east, west and north facades are glazed with patterned ceramic fritted glass and coloured laminated glass, providing shade and some privacy. The north façade is a curtain wall, providing light into the building; the east has a pattern of laminated coloured glass representing genetic code; the west façade has dotted fritting applied to its glazed panels and is highly transparent to show the colours of Donnelly’s 11 research departments painted on the hallway walls. Gardens are watered via roof runoff, collected by an integrated stormwater system.

Donnelly “is not so much an object as a system that coerces a variety of disciplines to interact,” writes Jiing-yen of the University of Waterloo.

UofT Faculty Club: Every journey requires repast—a place to relax, eat and drink—and my feet naturally directed me to one of my new favourite haunts: the UofT Faculty Club. Located close to the hub of the campus, on Willcocks Street just east of Spadina, the club is open to members who include faculty, staff, graduate alumni and their guests. I entered the 1896 heritage building, built in a Georgian Revival-style, and passed the elegant first floor lounge to the pub below. The pub welcomed me with excellent food, drink and a relaxing ambience. Bathed in rich tones of wood and comfortable chairs and warmed by a cozy fireplace, it reminded me of a Dorset pub I’d visited years ago; full of colourful characters and a well-stocked bar. I felt both at home and like a traveler. Like I’d walked into history with modern comfort. I ordered the beet salad from my friendly waitress; it provided a refreshing and attractive light meal for a mid-day traveller.

What better place to end my journey of “new embracing old” than in a place where “old embraces new.”

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Atwood, Water and The New York Times

“Water Is…” leads Atwood’s Pick for Books of 2016
Microsoft Word - Atwoods Picks-NYTimes.docx
ny-times-theyearinreaingEvery year, near Christmas, The New York Times puts out “The Year in Reading” in which they ask notably avid readers—who also happen to be poets, musicians, diplomats, filmmakers, novelists, actors and artists—to share the books that accompanied them through that year.
For the 2016 Year In Reading, The Times asked a prestigious and diverse readership, including Junot Diaz, Paul Simon, Carl Bernstein, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elizabeth Banks, Samantha Power, Philip Pullman, Ann Pratchett, Orhan Pamuk, Drew Gilpin Fause, Anne Tyler, and many others to share their books of 2016.
There was also Booker Prize-winning and celebrated Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood.
atwood-margaretMargaret Atwood is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature as well as the Booker Prize (several times) and the Governor General’s Award. Animals and the environment feature in many of her books, particularly her speculative fiction, which reflects a strong view on environmental issues.atwood-angel-catbird
Several of her latest works (e.g., Oryx and CrakeYear of the Flood, MaddAddam) are eco-fiction and may be considered climate fiction. Atwood and partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, are the joint honorary presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. Atwood’s highly popular graphic novel Angel Catbird reflects an environmental sensitivity to the balance between wildlife and humans and their pets in urban settings.
Atwood’s choice for 2016 books came from her active, astute and compassionate environmentalism. Suggesting that many of her 'The Year in Reading' co-readers would emphasize fiction, history and politics, Atwood chose her books “instead from a still-neglected sector. All hail, elemental spirits! You’re making a comeback!”
Here are the four books Atwood recommends and why:
  1. water-is-cover-webWater Is…: The Meaning of Water” (Pixl Press) by Nina Munteanu. “We can’t live without it, so maybe we should start respecting it,” says Atwood. “This beautifully designed book by a limnologist looks at water from 12 different angles, from life and motion and vibration to beauty and prayer.” Water is emerging as one of the single most important resources of Planet Earth. Already scarce in some areas, it has become the new “gold” to be bought, traded, coveted, cherished, hoarded, and abused worldwide. It is currently traded on the Stock Exchange…Some see water as a commodity like everything else that can make them rich; they will claim it as their own to sell. Yet it cannot be “owned” or kept. Ultimately, water will do its job to energize you and give you life then quietly take its leave; it will move mountains particle by particle with a subtle hand; it will paint the world with beauty then return to its fold and rejoice; it will travel through the universe and transform worlds; it will transcend time and space to share and teach.
  1. hiddenlifeoftreesThe Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World” (Greystone Books) by Peter Wohlleben. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of woods and forests and explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland and the amazing scientific processes behind the wonders of which we are blissfully unaware. Much like human families, tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, and support them as they grow, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. In contrast, solitary trees, like street kids, have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group. Drawing on groundbreaking new discoveries, Wohlleben presents the science behind the secret and previously unknown life of trees and their communication abilities; he describes how these discoveries have informed his own practices in the forest around him. As he says, a happy forest is a healthy forest, and he believes that eco-friendly practices not only are economically sustainable but also benefit the health of our planet and the mental and physical health of all who live on Earth.
  1. weeds-mabeyWeeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants” (Ecco) by Richard Mabey. “They’re better for you than you think,” says Atwood. “They hold the waste spaces of the world in place, and you can eat some of them.” Ever since the first human settlements 10,000 years ago, weeds have dogged our footsteps. They are there as the punishment of ‘thorns and thistles’ in Genesis and , two millennia later, as a symbol of Flanders Field. They are civilisations’ familiars, invading farmland and building-sites, war-zones and flower-beds across the globe. Yet living so intimately with us, they have been a blessing too. Weeds were the first crops, the first medicines. Burdock was the inspiration for Velcro. Cow parsley has become the fashionable adornment of Spring weddings. Weaving together the insights of botanists, gardeners, artists and poets with his own life-long fascination, Richard Mabey examines how we have tried to define them, explain their persistence, and draw moral lessons from them. One persons weed is another’s wild beauty.
  1. birds-and-peopleBirds and People” (Jonathan Cape) by Mark Cocker. “Vast, historical, contemporary, many-levelled,” says Atwood. “We’ve been inseparable from birds for millenniums. They’re crucial to our imaginative life and our human heritage, and part of our economic realities.” Vast in both scope and scale, the book draws upon Mark Cocker’s forty years of observing and thinking about birds. Part natural history and part cultural study, it describes and maps the entire spectrum of our engagements with birds, drawing in themes of history, literature, art, cuisine, language, lore, politics and the environment. In the end, this is a book as much about us as it is about birds.
“Time to pay attention to the nonhuman life around us, without which human life would fail,” Atwood concludes.
As we enter a new year of great uncertainty, particularly on how we and our environment leaf-water drop copywill fare in a shifting political wind, these books offer diverse insight, a fresh and needed perspective and critical connection with our natural world–and each other through it.
Buy them, discuss them, share them. And save this planet.
Happy New Year!
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books.